Justifying Jess: Beckley’s Daughters, Book Four

You can cut it all off…

You can burn it all down…

But you’re back where you started… and the wheel goes ’round.

Chapter 1

“Cut it all off.”

I looked up. Her tawny tiger’s eyes were hard. Glittering, but cold as ice. Her mouth twisted into a mocking grin and I looked away.

About an inch of tequila remained in the bottle on the counter. I grabbed it, swigging the last dregs and not even noticing the burn. But when I looked up, she was still there. Pale as death except for the brutal rings below those imperious eyes. Fuck you, I glared silently.

“Cut it all off,” she whispered again. And again, and again. It was a desperate plea wrapped in an hypnotic chant. She held out her fairy-tale braid, a two-and-a-half foot long twist of copper and rust. I put the bottle down and picked up the shears. The blades weren’t very long, but they were sharp enough to bite through 12-gauge aluminum. Hair wouldn’t be a problem.

A sudden wave of nausea doubled me over. Don’t you dare puke. I twisted the handle and slurped a drink straight from the faucet, my cheek grazing the shallow sink basin. I closed my eyes and let the cool water wet my face. I took another long drink. You can do this, I told myself. You have to do this.

I stood up and wiped my cheek. She gazed back at me, calmer now that the decision had been made. I raised the shears and gave her one last chance.

“Once I do this, everything changes.” I stared meaningfully at the thick burnished braid hanging long over her shoulder. “Everything. You have to be sure. Are you sure? Because I think you’re just fucking drunk.”

“Oh, I’m drunk alright. I’ve been buzzed since 10:30 this morning, fuck you very much. And I’d really like not to start drinking again twelve hours from now. You can’t work when I’m drunk, it’s dangerous. You know this. You’re lucky I’m letting you use the sheet metal shears right now. Stop talking and start cutting.”

Stop talking and start cutting. I lifted the braid, a heavy weight in my hands. That braid had gone to kindergarten. Finished high school. Stolen boyfriends. Graduated college. Waved from the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field and kiss-cammed the wrong damn man. Sat in a Chicago courthouse and been sentenced to eighteen months probation for Class 3 felony money laundering.

Nine months to go.

Shut up and cut. One cut, and everything would change. One cut, and it didn’t have to be this way anymore.

I slid the hair between the blades.

“Don’t be mad at me,” I whispered, closing my eyes and squeezing the grips.

After three ragged cuts, the dismembered braid coiled like a snake on the bathroom counter. The severed end unraveled and fanned out gracefully on the ancient avocado-green laminate surface. I raised my gaze to the hazy mirror above the chipped porcelain basin.

“That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” She smiled—I smiled—and a weight lifted from my shoulders. I shook my head, laughing as I noticed that the left side chopped off right below my ear, while the right side brushed my shoulder.

Still laughing, I stepped from the tiny powder room and back into my studio. The Scar Symmetry/Amon Amarth playlist that had driven my brother Buck hours ago from the converted stable that was our shared workspace still raged from the expensive speakers I had mounted high in the corners. With a tap and a swipe on my phone, I killed the music. Then I killed the lights, locked the shop, and stumbled toward the house, suddenly feeling the full effects of tequila and the post-adrenaline crash/shock of cutting my hair for the first time since I was five.

Everything was going to be different now.

“Oh, honey.” Nichelle set her coffee cup down without taking a sip, pity just pouring out of her blue eyes. She sat at the kitchen table while Bucky stood at the stove, carefully folding an omelet onto a plate. His head swiveled and his eyes got big.

“You wanna talk about it?” he asked, his voice equal parts gruffness and amusement. After tossing and turning all night, my ragged haircut looked especially dramatic in the warm morning light streaming through the window over the sink.

I shrugged and shambled to the cupboard for a coffee mug. Buck handed me the ancient blue enamel percolator with a questioning eyebrow.

“Put your eyebrows down, Grandpa,” I joked half-heartedly, barely able to get the words out of my cotton-mouth. My head pounded harder than the Swedish metal I had been listening to last night. As I collapsed onto a chair, Nichelle swung into action, popping two slices into the toaster and pouring a half-glass of grapefruit juice.

“Vitamin C.” She motioned for me to drink up. “Won’t fix it, but it will help.” I mumbled my thanks, too ashamed to look at her. I was a damn mess, and she was damn near perfect. Buck and Nichelle had been married for five weeks now, and I had never seen her lose her cool. Granted, they had been on an Italian honeymoon for four of those weeks, but still. She always knew exactly what to do, how to act, what to say—and how to look calm and collected the whole time.

Buck thunked a plate on the table. Half an omelet, slice of toast. I mumbled my thanks and nibbled a corner of the dry bread. As he handed Nichelle a plate with the other half-omelet, he bent his head and kissed her temple, then sputtered and chuckled as he blew one of her dark-brown corkscrew curls out of his mouth. I hated that I hated how happy they were.

I hated that my big drunk mouth had kept them apart for months.

I hated that neither one of them was holding a grudge.

I hated that what I really wanted right now was a shot of tequila.

“You really need to upgrade that bathroom in the shop,” I addressed my brother with a mouth full of eggs. “Seriously, it’s like the 1970s died a gruesome death in there.”

“Plumbing works just fine,” he shrugged, sitting himself down with an omelet three times larger than any normal human could/should eat. “And I spent the shop’s reno budget on an extravagant European holiday. You know, with my bride.”

Nichelle looked up from typing on her phone and smiled slightly as he winked at her. Then she leveled a stern gaze on me.

“Cecilia has an opening at 10:30,” she spoke decisively. “You’re lucky she can fit you in on a Saturday morning.”

I shook my head petulantly. Cecilia’s salon, Heavenly Hair, was 45 minutes away, all the way over in Big Rapids. I had already decided that I just needed to trim up the right side to match the left, and there were at least a dozen good pairs of sewing scissors in the craft room.

“No sewing scissors,” Nichelle warned sharply. Pun intended, because of course she knew what I had planned. She picked up my breakfast plate and headed to the sink. “Girl, go get your ass dressed. Or do I need to drive you myself?”

“I’m going, I can do it myself,” I sounded like a five-year-old in my own ears. Maybe because the last time I had been in a hair salon, I had been five years old. Twenty-four years was a long damn time.

“Burn it all down.”

I spoke out loud as I circled the dilapidated single-wide slowly. The twisted screen door banged on one broken hinge with a brief gust of wind. The cheap aluminum siding was peeling back in multiple spots, mostly from age, but here and there by intention where vandals had stripped out the copper wiring. An after-thought carport sagged, one of its 6×6 supports collapsed. Piece of shit.

Burn it all down. Down to the ground. A melody twined its way through the words, twisting like the vines running up the three remaining posts of the carport. I pushed it away viciously. I hadn’t written a song in three years, and I was damned if I was going to start now. Not here. Not like this.

But this motherfucker was mine now, and I could burn the shit out of it if I wanted to. I wanted to. The six gas cans lined up in my truck bed spoke the truth of my intention. These acres were beautiful, but that trailer? Bad juju. I circled again. According to the National Weather Service, it had rained a half-inch just a few days ago. I kicked at a pile of last fall’s leaves; they were still wet beneath the surface. The trailer sat in the middle of a clearing about 50 yards across. Barring any sudden gusts, the fire would stay contained.

I found the wellhead and lugged my portable generator over. It took about ten minutes to get the pump running. I screwed a garden hose to the spigot and twisted the nozzle closed. I unfolded my nylon camp chair and set it next to the spigot. I put the ice chest full of beer on the other side, within easy reach.

Three gas cans easily saturated the inside of the trashed, abandoned trailer. I tossed the empties back in the truck bed, then popped the latch on the RamBox to dig out a road flare.

Rummaging through the tangle of jumper cables, bungee straps, shop rags, and random zip-ties, my knuckle cracked on hard glass. I didn’t need what little daylight remained to identify the object. I grabbed the neck and pulled the square bottle free. The black label was faded, wrinkled, and peeling but the bottle was still two-thirds full, even after ten years, four months, and sixteen days.

Couldn’t find a damn road flare. I’d have to improvise. I grinned at the bottle. My best old friend Jack. My worst enemy, old № 7. The last bottle I ever bought. Yeah, this’d work just fine. I twisted off the screw cap and poured a bit of the whiskey onto a greasy shop rag, then stuffed it into the neck. With a click of my Zippo, I lit the rag.

“Been a long time comin’,” I growled. I hurled the bottle through the open door and watched it shatter in an eruption of flames.

Burn it all down, down to the ground
Don’t say a word, don’t make a sound
Burn it all down, look what you found
You’re back where you started
And the wheel goes ’round

The melody was relentless, and it made my fingertips itch for a fretboard and steel strings.

Ten years was a long time to stay gone. Fuck, it had been twelve. Twelve years, and nothin’ changed. I had pulled up to the deserted intersection that defined Beckley right at dinner time. Right or left? Jokey’s tavern on the right, Shirley’s Swift Stop on the left. I’d fill my gas cans after grabbing a bite at Jokey’s.

I had slid into a parking spot and found old Jokey exactly where I’d seen him last: behind the bar with a towel tossed over his shoulder. A little grayer, a little softer.

“Yo, Jokey,” I’d called as I stepped through the screen door. It was a good crowd for a Friday night in June, but nobody had looked twice at the long-haired, middle-aged guy in a beat-up leather jacket.

Except Jokey. He had done a double-take. “Hardy deVries, is that you?”

I sidled up to the bar and shook his hand. “Live and in person. How goes it, Jokey?”

“Can’t complain,” he had nodded, automatically reaching for a shot glass. “I do, but it don’t do any good.” He had filled it with Tennessee whiskey and pushed the glass across the bar.

“Nah, man,” I had shaken my head apologetically. “Not anymore.”

“For how long now?” he’d asked quietly. Respectfully.

I had shrugged. “Ten years, four months, sixteen days. But who’s counting, right?”

I shook my head and snapped into focus. The trailer was fully engulfed, and the slight breeze had died down. The full moon cast cool silver light over the angry red flames. The fire was constrained, but I circled with the hose, keeping a perimeter wet enough not to catch.

Dropping back into my camp chair, I pulled a half-crushed pack of Luckys from my jacket pocket. I put a smoke between my lips, but didn’t light it. I lifted the lid on the ice chest and grabbed a bottle of High Life, popping the top with my keychain. With the cigarette in my left hand, I raised the bottle with my right, toasting the burning wreckage.

“Everything changes now.”

I poured the beer onto the ground and tossed the bottle carelessly. I flicked the unsmoked cigarette after it.

By the time headlights wound their way down the rutted dirt drive, there were eight or ten empty bottles and half a dozen cigs strewn before me. The patch of ground on my right was saturated and stank like beer and rotting leaves.

A truck door slammed, and a dark figure trudged around the now-smoldering ruin.

“Gotta say, I been wantin’ to burn this shithole for years.”

I flicked on my flashlight and found his face with my beam. “Daniels? That you?”

His own beam caught me squarely. “Jesus Christ, Hardy? What the fuck, man?”

I held up the last beer, still full and ice-cold. “I saved the last one for ya.” I gestured to the burned-out carcass. “The whiskey went down with the ship.”

He approached slowly. I knew Brian Daniels was a cop now, but the last time I had seen him, he was working two jobs while trying to stay in college and take care of his sick mother. He took the beer from my grasp, but didn’t drink it.

“How’s your mama?” I asked. He startled, then grinned.

“Healthy. Still workin’ at the bank in Bowdon. Thanks for asking.” He nodded, then poured his beer into the puddle of its fallen brethren. “Nobody’s called the sheriff’s police yet, if you’re wondering. Shirley just happened to give me a call after you filled a half-dozen gas cans and asked her for the keys to Mack Bielinski’s place. Now why would you go and do a thing like that, Hardy?”

“Ain’t Mack’s place anymore,” I shrugged. “It’s mine now. Just doin’ a little routine maintenance, is all.”

Daniels sat down hard on the ice chest. Looked a little stunned. “Wish you would’a called me, deVries. I would’ve thrown the first match.”

“Sorry man, I got greedy. Next time, okay?”

He laughed. “You buy the whole thing? All ten acres?”

“Yeah, and another twenty adjacent on the northern edge. I’m thinking of staying a while.”

“It’s a far cry from L.A.,” he replied.

“That’s the whole point.”

What would Nichelle wear?

I surveyed my closet with a sigh. It was full of paint-stained jeans and t-shirts two sizes too big. Nichelle would wear something elegant, like linen trousers and a silk tank. Her scarf would match her top, and her shoes would match her purse. That option did not exist in my closet.

A glance at the clock said it was time to get going. Pushing through the tangle of wire hangers, I pulled out a dress. Never worn, I had ordered it online for Heather and Brian’s wedding nine months ago. Then I chickened out and didn’t go. Looking at it now, it was probably too casual for a wedding anyway. The v-neck and spaghetti straps felt summery/beachy, not autumny/weddingy. The lightweight cotton fabric, paisley-printed in sunset shades of vermilion, bittersweet, and saffron, would be nice and cool.

I threw it on with a shrug, paired it with flat sandals, and hit the road. I rolled up to the white painted brick building with the vivid purple awning five minutes early. There was even a parking space. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all.

“Oh, honey,” Cecilia greeted me with a distressed look at my hair.

“What have you done?” her partner Roxane cried, hands flying dramatically as she sailed across the salon. Her Eastern European accent contrasted heavily with the beautiful Asian-inspired sleeve of tattoos stretching from wrist to shoulder.

Cecilia fluffed her fingers through my chopped ends. “I know just how to fix this. Do you trust me?”

Three months ago, she and Roxane had styled my cousin Aerin for her wedding. Sitting on the couch of Aerin’s personal suite at the Starbrite Lodge, I had watched the process with increasing trepidation. When it came my turn, I had closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. But Cecilia had worked like a wizard, creating a mother-of-dragons braided style that had made me feel like a warrior queen. Yeah, I could trust her.

I nodded as she led me to the wash station and swirled a purple cape over me. As soon as her fingers hit my scalp, I felt an almost trance-like calm. Shampoo, rinse, condition, rinse—I wanted it to last forever. Too soon, Cecilia wrapped a towel around my head and led me to her styling station.

As she snipped and clipped, Cecilia kept a running conversation with Roxane, who was assembling an array of cosmetics on a rolling tray. I watched in horror as more and more hair fell away and less and less remained attached to my scalp. I started to panic.

I caught golden eyes in the salon mirror, and forced myself not to look away. Forced myself to breathe deeply, not to hyperventilate as the ruddy clippings carpeted the tile floor.

Everything’s different now, I reassured. The eyes staring back remained unconvinced.

“Shake your head,” Cecilia instructed as Roxane wheeled her tray of cosmetics over. “Supermodel shake, there you go.”

I shook my head and the short layers fell perfectly, framing my face. It was sexy. Grown-up and sophisticated. It was—oh god, had my neck always been that long? My right earlobe was ⅛-inch higher than my left. People would stare. Point and laugh. I felt a flush creeping up my neck beneath the waxed cotton cape.

“Now is for frosting the cake!” Roxane flourished a fluffy makeup brush. “Close mouth, please.”

I closed my mouth.

Confident. Completely at home in my own skin. I strode down the sidewalk, shoulders back, head high. Nobody pointed, laughed, jeered, or anything. I put a little swing in my step as I strolled down the sidewalk.

I caught my reflection in the plate glass window of the bookstore. Roxane’s makeup magic had left my pale skin with a healthy glow, and she had done something with a mascara wand that made my eyes wide/bright but simultaneously a little smoky/mysterious. Damn, she’s hot. She winked. I winked right back.

Can I buy you lunch? Reuben’s diner sat on the corner, two shops down. I smiled. Why thank you, that would be lovely.

Stepping from the summer heat into the cool diner, the first thing that caught my eye was leather and hair. My empty belly did a roller coaster lurch and I froze. Even now, just a peripheral glimpse of any random rock and roll bad-boy wannabe could stop me in my tracks. A bead of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades.

Don’t be a dork. You’d think I’d be over it by now.

I strode to the lunch counter and claimed a red vinyl swivel stool. I didn’t glance at the random stranger in the far booth. Why should I? It wasn’t him. It was never him.

“BLT, extra chips. Two pickle spears, please,” I smiled my order at the college girl behind the counter. “Iced tea to drink, please?”

“That’s a great cut,” she admired my hair as she jotted my order on her pad. “Wish I was brave enough to go that short.”

Wish I was too, sister.

Ignoring the air-conditioned chill on my exposed shoulders, I glanced around. Bad Boy to the left of me, so I swept my eyes right. The convex security mirror high in the far corner gave me a warped fish-eye view of the whole dining room. Stop slouching. The redhead in the mirror straightened her spine.

A tall glass of tea appeared on the counter. I unwrapped a straw and took a sip. Glanced up. Bad Boy was demolishing a burger in huge bites. Long black hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it back impatiently. He wasn’t a boy. Gray strands salted the thick black tangles.

It was him.

Oh god.

It was him.

Twelve years dissolved and I was seventeen again. And not in a good way. I took a deep breath. Everything’s changed. Everything’s different now. I chanted it like a mantra as I waited for my sandwich.

In the mirror, Hardy deVries, founder of the legendary metal band Cold Hard Hands, extracted a wad of cash from a battered wallet and tossed it on his table. I watched him rise and give one shoulder a roll. He didn’t see me watching him watch me. His gaze skimmed from my bare ankles to the back of my neck. He liked what he saw.

So did I. I had never stopped. I shaped my mouth into a confident half smile and turned my head to left. Everything’s changed. This time it would be different. Hey, stranger. No. Not that. I’m sorry, have we met? Bitch, please. Hello, Hardy. I’m not seventeen anymore.

Blank. Just…blank. Without the slightest recognition, without even a nod of awareness, he looked right through me. Moved right past me. Out the door and gone. No backward glance.

My shoulders slumped and my spine curled. He hadn’t recognized me. He doesn’t even remember you.

“How’s your sandwich?” the server asked, topping up my iced tea. “Can I get you anything else?”

I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Tasty, thanks.” I hadn’t taken a bite yet. “I sure hope that rock-star grandpa left you a good tip,” I smirked with a glance at the table Hardy had abandoned.

She blinked. “Are you for real? Grandpa?” she snorted derisively. “That rock star was Hardy deVries. As in Hardy. deVries.”

I opened my mouth with a bitingly sarcastic reply on my lips. I chomped a pickle spear instead. The sour vinegar coated my tongue and tasted like humiliation. The server had already moved on to the next customer.

I pushed the still-full plate away, appetite gone. Eat your damn lunch. I glanced again at the security mirror, glaring at the smoky topaz eyes. Fuck you. Fucking mirrors.